Backstage democracy of youth climate activism: A short note on ethnography with “Fridays For Future” in Kyoto, Japan

by Kei Nishiyama

On 21 April 2021, I attended a Zoom meeting of Fridays For Future Kyoto (FFF Kyoto), where members prepared for the next day’s climate march in Kyoto. They planned to express their views before the Japanese government decides on long-term goals about greenhouse gas emissions as part of the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). They were discussing how to organise the march in the current COVID-19 situation when one member interrupted in dismay:

‘Wait…oh…what!? Oh No. The government just declared a state of emergency!’

We were back to square one. Some, myself included, suggested that the march should be postponed whereas others insisted we should go ahead. ‘Ok, we have to discuss more. We need more input’, said one member.

[Summary of fieldnotes, 21/April/2021]


The Fridays For Future (FFF) movement, originally and symbolically started by Greta Thunberg, is a youth-initiated climate activist movement, which is currently travelling all over the world, including Japan. In Japan, several regional groups work independently; however, they collaborate as FFF Japan sometimes whenever required. FFF Kyoto is one of the regional groups organised by teenagers living in the Kyoto prefecture. Since 2019, members have been attempting to draw public attention to climate justice through various means of protest. This essay is written in line with my on-going ethnographic study with this group. What I have found so far is that the democratic raison d’être of FFF Kyoto is not just that the group contributes to the democratisation of climate governance, but that their various publicly visible actions are significantly anchored by democratic deliberation within the group.

It is often assumed that all members of FFF Kyoto were influenced by Greta and, therefore, their action is always geared towards addressing the coming climate crisis. However, a unique characteristic of FFF Kyoto, as compared with other FFFs, is that many active members initially joined the group with a wide range of non-climate-related concerns, including animal rights, gender, poverty and/or refugee problems. Several members even question Greta’s actions. Nonetheless, they came together under the umbrella of ‘climate change’.

Why is FFF Kyoto such a heterogeneous group? One might rightly say that because climate change emphasises the significance of fairness and justice, it becomes a common language that integrates members’ different socio-political concerns. However, during my ethnographic study, I noticed another clue to respond to the question: the politics-averse culture in Japanese schools. Members whom I interviewed often expressed a great deal of frustration about their schooling experience—in the school environment, talking about politics is carefully avoided, both on the curriculum and in everyday conversation with friends. Although students acquire basic knowledge about politics in civics class (e.g. the election process), they have less experience in discussing controversial political issues. Additionally, it is common that teachers avoid political controversy in the classroom to ensure ‘political neutrality’. One member said, ‘I learnt politics. But I didn’t learn how to think and talk politically’.

Thus, FFF Kyoto serves as a kind of ‘political sanctuary’, providing an alternative space enabling teenagers to escape from their school’s apolitical culture and deliberate about political topics freely. Members have attempted to bring back a safe space for political deliberation from apolitical Japanese schools in a way that is democratising their internal or ‘backstage’ activities, such as regular meetings or reading groups. Of course, FFF Kyoto foregrounds various ‘frontstage’ activities for climate justice, including a standing demonstration every Friday, but such publicly visible activities may offer only half a clue to understand the democratic value of FFF Kyoto. Backstage democracy is indeed another clue.

Let’s focus on their regular meetings. If you have a chance to observe them, you might think their meetings sometimes disregard ‘efficacy’ in a positive sense: they start with greetings, self-introduction of each member and free conversation (or what is called ‘agenda zero’) about topics not limited to the climate crisis (e.g. why are you interested in politics?). In addition, some unwritten rules are shared: deliberation first and voting second, giving everyone a chance to have a say, thinking and talking slowly, among others. These activities and rules do not always have a tangible and/or immediate impact on policymaking. Nonetheless, democratising such a backstage process cultivates the members’ sense of connectivity that drives innovation in their frontstage activities, especially when they face problems.

For example, the story at the top of this post has a sequel. After further deliberation, the group came to a consensus that they had to shift their attention from ‘whether they do the march’ to how they define and implement a safe, effective and recognisable march. After a non-coercive and non-hierarchical exchange of opinions lasting about two hours, they came up with the idea of a ‘two-person march’—perhaps one of the smallest protest marches in the history of Japanese social movements. Members deliberated about how to make the march, albeit a small one, as inclusive as possible. Finally, they agreed on a banner with hand impressions of people who wanted to join the march but physically could not, so that the two participants could symbolically turn their absence into a presence during the march.

Two-person march and a banner with hand impressions(Photo by Kei Nishiyama)

Quite often, people applaud youth climate activists with a specific focus on their frontstage activities. However, if we focus only on the march itself, its unique meaning and value would not be understood properly. This story shows that their frontstage democracy is significantly underpinned by the quality of backstage democracy in which young people (re)gain a sense of connectivity with others through democratic deliberation. The democratic value of youth climate activism cannot be understood without the focus on the interplay of frontstage and backstage democracy. As one member said, ‘If democracy is not shared within FFF, we shouldn’t speak about climate JUSTICE’.

Kei Nishiyama is an assistant professor of policy studies at Doshisha University, Japan. Kei has a PhD from the University of Canberra, Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance. Kei studies children, education and democracy from a deliberative point of view. 

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